04 Jan 2004 
Copyright 2004-2009 by owner.
 27 Feb 2010 

American Mainline Steam in the Late 20th Century

When railroads were brand new in the early 19th century, they used horses to haul single carriages along wooden rails topped with iron straps.  This was adequate for coastal plains, but venturing into the mountains of the continental interior was nigh impossible before the advent of the steam locomotive.  Once established, steam power reigned supreme on American rails for over a century.  With the advent of commercial electric power in the late 19th century, it became possible to route electrified urban lines underground to terminals and docks.  The 1920s saw some experimentation with a few oil-electric boxcab switch engines.  By 1940 the diesel-electric locomotive was growling its challenge on the mainline, and by 1960 it had completely replaced steam power in revenue service in the US.

But the fire-snorting giants would not be silenced quite so easily.

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In this lamentably dusty shot, the Fort Wayne Club's restored Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 number 765 hammers along Norfolk & Western's single-track main through Seven Mile Creek Valley on her way home from Cinicinnati.  With white "extra" flags snapping in the wind, her banshee whistle and crack-crack-crack exhaust let everyone know it's time to get out of the way!

This NKP Berkshire type is typical of a large group of superpower engines produced by the Lima Locomotive Works during the early 1940s.  Nearly identical locomotives were acquired by the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Erie, and the Pere Marquette railroad companies.  Designed for fast freight service, they could also perform in passenger service at 70 miles per hour.

Bringing up the rear of this circa 1980 fan trip is a track inspection car, a modified open-platform observation of 1920s vintage.

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In the mid-1980s, the Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western (oddly, the first and last class-one American railroads, respectively, to convert from steam to diesel-electric power) to become Norfolk Southern.  To rejuvenate Southern's popular but underpowered steam excursion operation, at the time limping along behind WWI-vintage 2-8-2 number 4501, two "modern" N&W steamers were brought out of storage and refurbished. Outfitted with "water bottles" (auxiliary water tenders) to extend their cruising range, these locomotives performed spectacularly during the late 1980s.

Norfolk & Western class J (4-8-4)
No. 611, built 1950
Ludlow, KY (1986)

Norfolk & Western class A (2-6-6-4)
No. 1218, built 1943
Ludlow, KY (1987)

On the right, a close-up of the valve gear on 1218's lead engine reveals one reason for the relatively low maintenance needs of modern steam power.  Note the power lubricator linkage just above the crosshead.  This ensures a constant supply of lubricant to sliding surfaces, which in older engines had to be manually oiled at station stops.  Such innovations significantly extended both cruising range and time between shoppings for modern steam.


Norfolk & Western built most of its own locomotives in its shops at Roanoke, Virginia.  As did some other railroads operating in anthracite-mining territory, N&W designed its modern steam power with distinctively wide Wooten fireboxes.  (Note the unusual flare of the lower boiler just forward of the cab.)  The hard anthracite burns more slowly than the more common bituminous coal, and the larger grate area maximizes heat output.


The 611 churns past farmland north of Hamilton on her way from Cincinnati to Fort Wayne.
Steam erupts from her 5-chime whistle as she announces the upcoming US-127 grade crossing.

Number 611 hustles the Bluegrass Special southward from Cincinnati.  Once out of the Ohio River Valley, this anthracite-munching racehorse stretches her gait and makes herself at home. Although the J's drive wheels are only 75 inches in diameter (compared to 80-inch drivers typical of 4-8-4s on other railroads), precision-balanced roller-bearing rods enable her to roll at100 miles per hour on the flat.

Manufactured in N&W's own Roanoke shops between 1941 and 1950, the fourteen streamlined 600s were among the last steam locomotives to be built for class-one service in the United States.


Her own syncopated exhaust sounding the drumbeat, 1218 marches smartly across the Erlanger trestle, on her way south out of Cincinnati...

...bound for Danville, with a 30-plus-car consist capped by a couple of twelve-wheelers—a Milwaukee Road full-length dome car, and Norfolk Southern's round-end observation car Mardi Gras.

Though steam locomotives are by nature labor-intensive, during their all-too-brief resurrections, both 611 and 1218 demonstrated how surprisingly maintenance-free modern steam power can be.  However, Norfolk Southern management decided to shut down the popular steam specials, after the rear car of an (unoccupied) excursion train was struck by another train while parked in a yard.  The trains are currently in storage in Alabama.

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NOTE:  I expect to add photo features on Steamtown USA, the American Freedom Train, and the Chessie Steam Special as time permits. Please stay tuned!